CAMDEN—It’s no secret that Maine lobstermen, like so many other small business owners, are hurting right now. Safe to say, even panicking. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, lobster prices have tumbled worldwide resulting in a slowdown of imports. Adding a further blow to the industry, with seafood distributors, exporters and restaurants closing their doors this week, lobstermen and other fishermen are finding themselves with fresh product and no one to buy it.
One local author, Ali Farrell, who is publishing a book about the lives of female lobstermen titled Pretty Rugged (due out this summer) started a special Facebook group page on March 18 called Maine’s Working Waterfront-Seafood Connect, which links up potential buyers directly to lobstermen looking to sell their catch.
“I’ve been visiting the islands to interview lobstermen for the past two years and have so many friends who are fishermen now, so I’ve been keeping up with all of them and what they’re going through,” she said. “They have lobsters in their traps, but since everything has closed down, they have no buyers and no outlets. I figured if I could act as a connector, we could get people the food they need while keeping the fishermen going.”
Farrell is a solutions-based thinker, and author of Pretty Combat: Nonsense, Shenanigans and Tactful Life Domination, a solution-based book that addresses issues of personal nature to Farrell.
At first, Farrell coordinated between buyers and two lobstermen using her personal Facebook page and then invited a couple more lobstermen to be suppliers.
“I have a ton of friends interested in buying, so I thought I’d connect them up,” she said.
Within one day of starting that Facebook group, Farrell said she took in orders for 960 pounds of lobster from nearly 49 interested buyers.
She had no idea how much of a local demand it would create. As a work-from-home mom with young children during the COVID-19 school closings, and an author, she realized that this entrepreneurial idea could turn into a full-time effort, so she made the Facebook group public.
“Right now I’ve got one guy in Vinalhaven and one in Harpswell,” she said. “Depending on the weather, the Vinalhaven lobsterman hopes to go hauling Tuesday and be in Rockland by Tuesday afternoon.”
The way it works is this: Farrell is monitoring the orders coming in through Facebook. The lobstermen will haul once a week and buyers can pay for their pre-ordered lobster right off the boat. There’s no middleman to cut the price and the lobster is fresh off the boat.
Starting 3/28, the process will switch to a different format: First come, first serve, farmer’s market-style. Any fisherman is welcome. Fisherman will decide what/if they are selling each week.
Since this story was written, another Midcoast group popped up, offering this service.
“Right now, lobstermen are not going to haul up traps full of lobsters if there are no buyers, so once the lobstermen have a set number of pre-orders, they’ll go out,” she said.
The current lobster deal being offered is $5 per pound with a 20-lb minimum ($100). All one needs to do is send a message through Facebook to place an order then pick up at a Rockland location (date to be determined). The buyers pay for the lobsters, which are bagged up when they arrive.
As of March 19, the Facebook community added a pipeline to oysters—$100 for 80 oysters.
“We’re currently arranging for clams and scallops to be available as well,” she said.
Given the precautions around handling cash during the pandemic, Farrell said the lobstermen can receive payment either in cash or by Venmo.
Several fishermen have expressed their gratitude for Farrell’s work in getting them back on the water and generating an income coming in. “Everyone’s in a panic right now and if I can make an easy connection to bring buyers directly to the lobstermen, I will,” she said.
This is a model that can be used in every coastal community. Solving a major local problem with some heart and a Facebook page, Farrell represents the kind of innovation we all need during these times.
Kay Stephens can be reached at email@example.com